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Somebody’s Daughter

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - June 6, 2017

Michelle Heera Kim and Vanessa Kai
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Playwright Chisa Hutchinson has garnered praise and awards for taking on socially complex issues in such works as She Likes Girls, inspired by the true story of the murder of a lesbian high school student, and Dead and Breathing, about the right to die. Her new play, Somebody's Daughter, opening tonight at Second Stage's McGinn/Cazale Theatre, manages to negotiate a truly tricky path by challenging our near universal propensity for making quick stereotyped judgments about people, while presenting a family relationship that invites stereotyping.

Despite some structural problems with the plot, Somebody's Daughter is a rich and powerful play that is likely to trigger strong responses in its audience, running the gamut from laughter, to heartfelt sympathy, to gasping outrage. The central character is a 15-year-old Chinese American girl, Alex Chan (Michelle Heera Kim), the only child of an emotionally distant father (David Shih), and a mother (Vanessa Kai) who at first appears to be a clichéd overbearing "Tiger Mom" but who turns out to be far scarier than any real tiger in the icy (sometimes vicious) way she treats her daughter, an "unworthy female" whom she wishes had never been born.

When we first meet Alex, she is sitting in the office of Kate Wu (Jeena Yi), the guidance counselor at her high school. Ms. Wu is looking over Alex's outstanding academic record and is offering advice on college. She tells Alex that her achievements, while laudable, are typical of the Chinese American students applying to top tier universities. What Alex needs, she says, is something that sets her apart from "all those other ridiculously high-achieving Chans out there. You must have a fire in there somewhere, a secret wish maybe?" Alex considers for a while and then answers: "I think I want to kill myself."

Over the course of the play, we learn more about Alex's hellish relationship with her mother, who is consumed with her own sense of failure for her inability to produce a son and takes it out on Alex at every opportunity. It's only through her counselor's support that Alex begins to realize there is nothing she can do that will earn her mother's approval (much less her love), and that she needs to make her own way through life. A defiant act of rebellion leads to some unexpected consequences, and things come to an explosive head when Alex's mother throws her out.

This brief description oversimplifies the content of the play, which is just as concerned with issues of race and gender and the capacity of culture to shape our lives. As part of this exploration, we also spend time with Kate Wu and her boyfriend Reggie (Rodney Richardson), who is African American. They appear to be in a serious, romantic, and loving relationship, but they have reached a roadblock they don't seem to be able to get past, owing to the differences in their backgrounds and the biases with which they were raised. Alex's story also takes a twist in the road when she begins dating Russ (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), a white classmate, partly because she is attracted to him, and partly as an act of defiance. We even learn enough about Alex's mother so that, if she weren't such a monstrous parent, we might be willing to spare her some of our sympathy.

All of these sometimes separate, sometimes interacting plot turns are related in short scenes on a single set (designed by Lee Savage) that encompasses all of the locales. Yet thanks to the sharp-as-tacks dialogue, the thoroughly excellent performances, and May Adrales's confident direction, each of these strands is fully explored. And while the play's underlying theme is driven by the writer's deep concerns about the ways in which our racial and gender constructs shape our lives, she has created such thoroughly compelling characters, that the "message" rarely draws attention to itself. Every decision the individuals make leads to feasible consequences, and while the ending comes off as rather pat and incomplete, it is likely you will leave the theater eager to talk about what you have seen.

Somebody's Daughter
Through June 25
Second Stage Theater's McGinn/Cazale Theater, 2162 Broadway at 76th Street, 3rd Floor
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Second Stage Theater

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